Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Choosing a Horse Trainer

by Laura Crum

Today I have a tricky question and I hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts. Cause I, for one, am majorly confused.

Last week I was asked by a casual friend who is a novice horseperson with a green horse (not the best combination, I know) if I would recommend a particular horse trainer she is considering working with. I know this trainer—lets call her Jane Doe. I never rode with her, but I’ve known her for many years, bought a couple of horses that at one time were in her barn; long ago we showed against each other in the local cuttings. We’ve always had a friendly “talking” relationship. And I was absolutely stymied as to what to say in answer to the question.

Here’s the problem. Jane Doe is a competent horseman, she’s been in the horse training business a long time. She has the same cowhorse background I do, and like me, she is now middle-aged and stout—unlike me, she has a bad back. She does not get on colts any more, she has her assistants do it. Jane doesn’t actually ride much at all any more. But she can talk the good talk.

OK, nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Except that I happen to know that Jane put her assistant (and best friend) on a colt that had some major issues and said assistant got bucked off hard and put in the ICU for several days—and of course Jane had no insurance and no money to help with the bills.

Well, OK, a lot of trainers are in this position, I know. But I didn’t think it was too responsible of Jane. Nor did it argue that she had very good judgement when it came to reading horses.

Jane has made some decent horses over the years. And she’s had some colossal failures. I think this can be said of most horse trainers. By and large, I don’t disagree with her methods. She’s well intentioned towards horses and people, I believe, but perhaps a bit blinded by her need to be the “expert”. Again, something that can be said of a lot of trainers.

And then, I was at a party with Jane not too long ago. Privately she confided to me about her bad back, and how she could hardly climb on the horses any more, even broke horses. She described trying to ride her old (broke to death) show horse when the mare was fresh and how this was a “harrowing” experience. I understood, of course; I would be in the same boat. But I’m not calling myself a horse trainer. (And I also happened to know that Jane is currently trying to sell the old show horse and is representing the mare as gentle for kids…uhmm, you can’t have it both ways. A horse that is gentle for kids should not be “harrowing” for an experienced rider to cruise around the pasture when the mare is fresh.)

At this same party, when a group of folks were gathered around, Jane proceeded to make fun of a young man who is just starting out as a horse trainer in this county. Granted, the guy is young and has a lot less experience than Jane. And Jane’s way of making fun of him was subtle. She just kept telling stories about things he’d done with horses and letting her audience infer how clueless he was compared to oh-so-knowledgable her. The other people had a fun time laughing about the young trainer. I wasn’t particularly amused.

I kept my mouth shut (for once), but I thought to myself that said young guy (who I know) isn’t afraid to climb on a colt, unlike Jane these days. He doesn’t put his assistants on to take the falls. A broke horse acting up would not scare him. Unlike Jane, he still rides the horses that are put in training with him. This guy is well intentioned and pretty handy. He may not have Jane’s experience, but he rides a lot better than she does now.

Jane’s main event nowadays is giving lessons and clinics. She’s good at this—very patient with beginners and kids. Jane feels very comfortable with people who clearly know less than she does about horses. She loves standing safely on the ground instructing other folks in “Horsemanship 101”. And she’s very respectful of big name trainers who have achieved far more than she has in the showhorse world. But anyone who might remotely be considered an equal renders Jane defensive and wary, eager to prove that she is the knowledgable horse guru in these parts.

Now this isn’t an uncommon trait in horse trainers. And Jane is never boastful. No, she’s quiet and seems humble; she just makes the occasional pointed comment or tells the occasional quasi-humorous story that essentially puts down the opinions of her peers. Like many people with fragile egos, Jane takes a lot of pride in keeping her mouth shut. She told me once that when she went to clinics with bigger name trainers she never asked questions or gave her opinion, she just listened. This was meant to show how humble and what a a good student she was. Of course, what this said to me was that she was too invested in her own ego to take a chance on looking silly. Because the way a person learns most is to ask questions and be willing to discuss ideas. But one can’t do this if one is afraid of looking less than knowledgable.

Jane and I have always gotten along pretty well over the years we’ve known each other. Nonetheless, I’m aware that Jane isn’t very comfortable around me. I think she can tell that I don’t buy her oh-so-much-more-knowledgable-than-thou pose and it bothers her. I have pretty much the same background in the horse biz that she does, though I never hung out my shingle as a trainer. I think she finds this threatening. I’m willing to bet that when I’m not around, she tells slighting stories about me, too. I can’t say that I really like Jane.

So, where does this leave me when it comes to recommending Jane as a trainer? I’m not sure. If my friend (lets call her Mary) just meant to take lessons, I could honestly say that Jane is very good at giving lessons to novices. Many of her students part company with her as they get more experience—I think because of some of the issues I’ve described here. But Mary also wants to put her green horse in training with Jane.

Should I tell Mary that Jane is very unlikely to ride the horse herself? (Except, perhaps, when Mary is around.) That it will be Jane’s assistants who will ride the horse day in and day out. Mary doesn’t know this. Again, this situation is not unique to Jane—when I worked for a well known cowhorse trainer, there was one little Appy mare in his barn in whom he was not much interested. I was the one who broke and trained this mare. For six months no other human being rode her besides me. (Of course, the trainer collected his big monthly training bill.) The owners never knew about this (partly because they did not come around). This mare turned out fine, I did a good job on her…but you see my point. Should I tell Mary that this will happen in Jane’s barn? Should I tell Mary that I think Jane has a few, shall we say, personal issues? The number of former clients who are not on speaking terms with Jane is considerable. Mary is a forthright person, just like I am. Shall I warn her that Jane seems threatened by people who do not act properly subservient?

And if I do, and Mary says, “Who would be better?” then I’m stumped. Because I don’t actually know who would be better. That young guy Jane was making fun of in her subtle way…he is lacking experience and he doesn’t have a very good facility. The best known cowhorse trainer in these parts is very hard on horses. You see, I know all these guys. Jane is far from the worst of them.

So, I remain puzzled. When Mary called me up and asked me the question, I blurted out something inane. I think I said, “Jane’s fine, if you don’t expect too much.” When Mary said, “Would you recommend her?” I just said, “She’s OK.” Typical horse trainer talk. But later I went round and round with myself. Was I doing Mary a diservice? I wouldn’t put a horse in training with Jane. Not just because I know she doesn’t ride them (and isn’t actually a very good rider any more), but because I know that at bottom, I don’t really think I could get along with her and her too fragile ego. But I’m not sure if this would be a problem for Mary.

I do know a horse trainer or two that I really like, but none of them happen to be in this county. My friend and boarder sent his young horse to one of these guys, but it’s a three hour drive from here. Mary wants someone local, where she can show up once a week and take lessons.

I wish I knew the perfect horse trainer to recommend in this area, but I don’t. So, what do you think? What should I say, or not say? How do you guys evaluate a horse trainer? Do you run across this “trainer ego” problem, too? Should I let Mary work out if she can get along with Jane and not predjudice her against the woman? Is this more my issue than a real problem with Jane as a trainer? I’m confused. Those of you who are trainers feel free to tell me your views, too. I’ve never been a horse trainer (despite the fact that I was assistant to half a dozen) and am perhaps too willing to take a negative view of something a trainer may believe is no big deal. What do you think?


Alexa said...

I'm delurking to say, that if I were your friend I would want to know everything you just wrote so I could make an educated decision. You certainly put a lot of thought into your words and aren't being hasty or slandering anyone. If you were uncomfortable with any of your words getting around to the trainer, I'd just ask her not to say anything.

She is an adult looking for your advice, and I think it is fair to say, "I'm not telling you who to use but this has been my experience with the trainers around here..." She may decide that the proximity and the trainer's skills at teaching beginners outweigh that the trainer isn't the one riding her horse. I don't know if I would care about it all that much, so long as I knew her assistants were good at what they do. And I could ignore the attitude until I decided I couldn't anymore. Everyone has a different tolerance for that stuff.

So my two cents say, I'd lay it all on the table. :) Also I've read everyone one of your books and loved them all.

Mrs. Mom said...

Miss Mary needs to spend time at both barns, and watch both trainers in action. She needs to be comfortable with everything about the situation, and listen to her gut instinct. In fact, IMO, she'd be best serving herself and her horse by visiting a LOT of barns, a LOT of trainers and instructors, and finding out what it is she really wants in a trainer. It might be that after time spent there, Mary is not comfortable with Jane.

But if that is not able to happen for whatever reason, I'd advise her to use caution, as Jane might not be the one riding the horse. Advise her to ask questions- a lot of questions, one of them being who is the primary rider, the trainer or an assistant.

I guess the thing to look at is would you send a horse to this trainer? Or would you choose to interview someone else, and make another decision?

Sorry... thats probably no help at all...

Oh- and Sonny Bunz sends you a slobber ;)

horsegenes said...

My take on trainers is that they are usually very artistic people, dreamers, and their feet never touch the ground. Some have no actual knowledge of how the "real world" works. They do tend to develope big egos with just a little success. BUT this is what makes them trainers. They don't think like the rest of us, they approach horses and life in a completely different style and thought process. It must be a left brain, right brain thing.

I think that you should tell your friend that if she just wants to take lessons that Jane is her girl. But if she wants to put her horse in training she should go watch a couple of Jane's training sessions to see if she can live with the way Jane rides. You might even help her with a list of questions that she could ask Jane - including "who is going to ride my horse besides you?" The fact that she isn't riding the horses will come to light pretty quick that way. The younger man may be the ticket depending on what she wants for her horse. If she wants a saddle broke horse to trail ride, then maybe the young guy is the one who is going to give her wet saddle blankets and lots of miles on her horse - again I would suggest that she watch a few of his training sessions just to make sure that he can ride. If his place is not suitable to leave a horse at, then maybe not. Tough decision. If she wants a show horse she may have to buck up and take the horse out of the area.

I guess first off she has to decide exactly what she wants or where she wants to start.

p.s. Nothing irrates me more than when I hear a trainer talking "smack" about another trainer. It is so unprofessional. I lose all respect.

Promise said...

I think since she asked for your opinion, and most likely expected an honest one from you, since you're friends - that you should tell her what you think of Jane, your experience/knowledge of her, and then let her make her own decision.

That way, if she goes to Jane anyway, you'll have a clear told her everything you knew, and your opinions as well.

Shanster said...

I would tell her. I don't have this experience with horse trainers because I've sorta stayed with the same family for a long time...

Tho' when I was brand new to another thing - dairy goats - there is a be all and end all vet for goats near me. However, her bedside manner is quite rough and can be insulting.

I was warned by a couple of people familiar with this woman. It wasn't a character assasination - but included pertinent information. I sometimes use this fractious vet and sometimes I don't - it depends on what I feel like dealing with at the time.

So I think you are perfectly justified in 1. saying Jane probably won't ride the horse. This isn't such a slight against Jane as this happens in the industry.

2. she is good and patient with beginners but once the student has learned up to a point or if the student isn't subservient enough, things generally go bad.

It's up to Mary to decide if she wants to deal with the issues. You could tell her about the younger guy ... she's asking for information. It's hard to know what to do cuz you aren't her... you know what you would do.

I'd give her the names of the people you like outside of the county along with the young guy and Jane and tell her the basic info you stated here about each. Then she has the information and can call or interview or think about what she wants to accomplish or put up with and eventually do with the info.

I don't think you would be throwing anyone under the bus... just being forthright.

I sure appreciated having the info I had when I called that vet... I was able to accept her much easier knowing it's just how she happens to deal with people.

Takes all kinds to make this world go 'round. That is for sure!

Laura Crum said...

"Delurking"...what a great word. And one I never heard before. Maybe I've just led a sheltered life. Alexa, that is a good point. Its my nature to be straight forward and I did contemplate calling Mary back and basically saying what I said in the post. I just couldn't make up my mind if it was the right thing to do or not. Jane rubs me the wrong way, but I'm pretty intolerant of anything resembling "posing". I guess I was wondering if this was all more my issue than a real problem with Jane as a trainer. I suppose I could tell Mary that.

And you're right Mrs Mom. I could/should recommend that Mary ask Jane who will be riding her horse. Its a question I would ask any trainer. Even one I knew well and trusted. And yeah, Mary did go watch Jane ride a few times. Mary liked what she saw, and liked Jane, which doesn't suprise me. Most trainers are pretty likable when they're selling themselves to a new client. Mary isn't terribly knowledgable and would have few tools to evaluate Jane's skill. I guess that's why she's asking around about her. And no, I wouldn't send a horse to Jane, but its partly because I suspect that she and I would not get along. A former student/assistant/friend of Jane's parted company with Jane and her barn a year ago, and I got quite an earful about Jane and how she treated this woman. But, again, do I pass this on? Isn't this just another form of gossip and talking trash? And Mrs Mom, it has rained for a week straight. I envy you getting out to work with Sonny. I haven't been on a horse in ten days.

And kel, I so agree about the talking bad thing, and I don't want to do it myself. Jane was actually very subtle in the way she talked the young trainer guy down. Never said one outright negative thing, just kept telling little humorous would have been hard to call her on it. Jane is not one to be particularly open about anything, in my experience. Its one of the problems I have with recommending her. But, as Alexa said, everyone has a different tolerance for this stuff. If I knew another local trainer who would fill the bill better, I would say so. I can't recommend the young guy because he doesn't really have a decent facility. What Mary wants/needs, I think, is a safe place for her horse with a nice arena where she can come take a weekly lesson. I don't think she has any ideas about showing or trail riding particularly. She's smart enough to know she should put this green four-year-old she bought in training and she wants to ride western. That's about it.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster and Promise--well, this is really helping. I'm starting to get the picture that most people think I should give my honest opinion, just as I did in the blog post. Maybe I should say I have a problem with this "trainer ego" thing, which I've run across in a great many trainers besides Jane, and that's my personal issue. The trainers I get along with are not only good with horses but they're real down to earth and don't assume they know more than everybody else. Sometimes they do, of course, but they're not invested in being the expert. They're genuinely open to new ideas and they listen to their clients, as well as to their horses. In general, they're open, straight forward people, rather than reserved and secretive. So, maybe this is what I should/will tell Mary.

Susan said...

I too believe honesty is the best policy. The problem oftentimes seems to be telling too much. Sometimes it's hard to stop talking when someone with less experience is hanging on your every word. Not that I think you would do that, but I know I have. So, "Just the facts Ma'am." And I have a big problem with egotistical trainer/clinicians. I would advise avoiding anyone with a fragile ego. In my experience at least, the resentment out did anything I learned, as in who do those a------- think they are. But that's just me. Some people prefer a god-like figure to tell them what to do.

Laura Crum said...

Susan, that is exactly what I'm struggling with. Some people really like "a godlike figure to tell them what to do", as you say. In Jane's case, make that a "quasi-sympathetic mother figure"--until she feels theatened. So I don't want to assume that what bothers me will also bother Mary. The person who gave me the earful about Jane was her star student/assistant/friend, and just loved Jane, until other people in the barn started treating star student as if she were a peer of Jane's rather than an inferior. And things went downhill from there as Jane became very hostile (in her indirect way). But, of course, this is just a story told to me, I have no first hand knowledge about it, and just like you say, it is so easy to go on and on and pretty quick you're telling all this stuff you probably should keep your mouth shut about. (This would be me, too.)

And I'm glad to hear that others besides me resent those trainers/clinicians whose first assumption is that they know more than those around them. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. And, just as there's all types of people in the world, there's more than one effective way to train a horse and some of these trainers can just get over the idea that they are the one in the group who really knows how to read and work with a horse--the rest of us being less experienced airheads, of course. Anybody else been there?

Laura Crum said...

Oh and Alexa, thanks so much for the nice words about my books. I always appreciate it when folks tell me they've enjoyed my stories. The new one, "Going, Gone" is now available. I just got my copies from the publisher today, and for those bloggers who signed up to review it, Susan from Perseverance Press said she mailed the review copies out--so you should be getting them soon.

Aske said...

Stick to facts and tell what you know. (like you did more or less in writing)
This way your friend can decide what to do or what not to do... by the way what is a three hour drive if you know that afterwards you will have a perfectly trained horse that will last a lifetime... the owner can decide but the horse can't can it :-))

stilllearning said...

I've found myself in this position more than I like, and it's an uncomfortable one. Being older than dirt and living in a relatively small horse community means that I've known or worked with most of the local trainers at some point. When a beginner asks which would be the best trainer for them, I mostly stutter and mutter and do the best I can to be honest, but give out information on a need-to-know basis, as you did.

I speak out if there's a safety issue for horse or rider, but the trainer/client relationship is based so much on personalities meshing that it's hard to advise someone else on the best choice.

Mostly I advise them to choose someone they feel comfortable with, but to keep their eyes open and trust their instincts if something doesn't feel quite right. I remind them that they are the customer, and should enjoy the process, and that their horse should be happy, too.

Still...I'm watching someone I sent to a local trainer for lessons being sold a fancy warmblood jumper ($$$) for their young daughter who just started riding, and trading in their been-there-done-that horse in the process....Errrgggg.

Michelle said...

I think its best to be honest, and tell her both the good and the bad. When I was looking for a trainer, I didn't have anyone to turn to, and I wish I'd had someone with an honest opinion! I chose a woman who, while nice, cancelled on me a lot, and pushed me farther than what I could do...I was jumping and didn't know how to canter, and she wanted me to just start showing in three-day eventing, when I'd never jumped more than one jump at once, and didn't know the first thing about dressage. I left her after a year. Now I have a great trainer and have learned so much...I wish I had started with my current person!

Terri Rocovich said...

Boy Laura, is this a common tale. I understand the conundrum you feel. I can not tell you the number of clients that I have gotten over the years who have moved their horses to me either because they weren't getting ridden at all (which is down right stealing) or that the name trainer was spending very little time on the horse, which is unethical in my book.

I currently have 14 horses at my barn, 10 of which are in full or part training with me. Yes I have 3 very talented working students who tack, warm-up, cool down and do hack horses when I am out of town. But I get on every horse (or the owner takes lessons) the number of times/week prescibed by that horse's training agreement. So if an owner is paying for full training, either I ride, or the owner gets a lesson on that horse 5 days/week. If we have extended breaks due to the weather, I give a discount on the next months bill.

With that said, Laura, you and I both know that that policy is not as common as it should be in the horse world in any discipline.

My suggestion to you is to thouroughly explain the process by which each trainer, the younger one with less experience, and the older one who might not actually ride her horse but has more experience, and let your friend draw her own conclusions. Perhaps the best of both world's would be to send the horse to the younger trainer for a period of time and then later your friend and take lessons with Jane.

When young horses are in the learning process, I feel that it is essential that they get solid, consistant schooling from a confident, well balanced rider, experienced in applying tactful aides. This is paramount to create a learning environment for the horse without constant confrontations or potential abuse.

What would be nice, but probably won't happen, is that Jane would mentor the younger trainer. I benefited from this when I first started out. Another trainer, who I still lesson with when I can, mentored me and I would not have the success I have today without her support. I do my best now to "pay it forward" and mentor young riders when I can whether they work for me or not.

At 51, I know that the day will come that I can not physically ride 8 or more horses in a day. Believe me I am starting to feel it now and I have to work out off the horse about 5 days a week to keep my body strong enough to do what I need to do. But I know full well that in 10 years or so,(or even less) my schedule will have to change and I will shift my business to more clinics and teaching rather than training horses. Either that or I will win the lottery and find a beach somewhere!!

Even now, I have another trainer jump my paint (pictured on the front) over the bigger fences because I have lost my faster reflexes and some of my confidence when the fences are over 3 feet. Bec is younger and very talented and is the better rider for Hank in that area, so I put my pride aside for the horse's benefit. Jane should see that she is not doing anyone a favor, herself, her assistant's, her clients or their horses, my not being realistic about her strengths or weaknesses.

I think that diplomatic honestly is probably always the best policy. Good luck and let us know how it works out.

Laura Crum said...

Terri--I wish more people in the horse biz were like you. I think having an open agreement on who is going to do the riding (and how many days a week) is an excellent idea--and like you said, I don't personally know any trainer who offers that (other than you, and you're a long ways from here). Also, I can tell fromm what you write that you are realistic and honest, and I think that's just the problem that I have with Jane (and others). She is not open about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with having her assistants ride the horses--as long as she and the customer see eye to eye about it. And the fact that she isn't up to riding anything too difficult any more is fine--as long as she isn't pretending that she does. Its the posing that is the problem--the whole trainer ego thing.

And stillearning--that example you gave, about the trainer convincing the people to trade the good old horse for the pricey warmblood (who the trainer is no doubt making a commission on)--that made me grind my teeth, too, and I don't even know the people. Its such a common story.

Aske and Derby Gal, yes, I'm beginning to get some clarity on what I need to say. Skip the second hand stories and just give my honest take on the situation.

Thanks, everybody, for the advice. Putting a horse in training is expenseive and I think it is only fair to Mary that I help her make a choice that works for her. I will go ahead and tell her about the trainers I do really like, even though they are all several hours away. And I'll explain what I understand about the horse training biz in general, without pointing too many fingers at Jane. That way Mary will know what questions to ask and what things to consider. Hopefully this will help her make a good choice.

Natural Horsemanship said...

You guys knows Erick Bravo? I think He is the best horse training..

stillearning said...

I also,think that giving a list of things you would ask a trainer, things you personally look for as you advize a novice in horses and in riding are all to the advantage of whoever you are counseling. My experience lately with trainers has left me more surprised and sometimes disappointed with the lack of professionalism and respect for clients among trainers than I would have ever thought to expect.